May 20, 2010
Transgender woman murdered on Milwaukee street
Joseph Erbentraut READ TIME: 3 MIN.
While mainstream media's news reports of Dana A. "Chanel" Larkin's murder on Friday, May 7, in Milwaukee have focused on the alleged perpetrator's version of what he said happened, the crime's scant media coverage has offered little to no information on who she was.
According to those who did know her, Larkin, 26, was a young transgender woman of color who loved her family and friends. She had turned to sex work to make ends meet.
Milwaukee prosecutors contend Andrew Olacirequi had met Larkin on the street late Thursday, May 6, while he was driving around the city looking for a prostitute. He reportedly encountered Larkin near North 27th Street and North Avenue around 1 a.m. on May 7, and offered her $20 to perform a sex act. Larkin reportedly asked the suspect if "it was OK with him actually being a man." Olacirequi allegedly pulled out a .357-caliber revolver when Larkin reportedly made an advance on him and shot her in three times in the head.
Larkin was found dead on the sidewalk of North 23rd Street, and police arrested Olacirequi after he returned to the crime scene to look for a lost cell phone. Prosecutors have charged him with first-degree reckless homicide and use of a dangerous weapon; he faces up to 65 years in prison.
In response to the murder, trans Milwaukeeans have expressed alarm at media reports that have called Larkin a "cross-dressing prostitute" or "man posed as a female." Those who knew her say she had identified as a woman since she was 16 and had wanted to change her birth gender identity as early as age three.
Michael Munson, executive director of the Milwaukee-based trans advocacy organization FORGE, expressed sadness over Larkin's murder and disappointment over how the city's media has covered it. National LGBT media has yet to report the homicide.
"The media has not respected that identity and have reported the crime crudely and it sends the message that we don't care about dead prostitutes," said Munson. "But that's not what her [Larkin's] life was and this is a really big deal."
Brenda Coley, a staff member at Diverse and Resilient, knew Larkin from SHEBA (Sisters Helping Each other Battle AIDS,) a group geared to trans women of African descent. She said Larkin was close with her family and well-known in the city's LGBT residents, many of whom attended her memorial service last Friday, May 14.
"Chanel deeply cared about her community and was very authentic," Coley told EDGE. "She loved her family dearly and they accepted her for who she is. She was a delightful person with a sophisticated sense of humor and there are things she knew she could have taught us. Our lives would have been better because of it."
In response to the murder, many trans advocates are pressing for both the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office and the city's police department to investigate Larkin's death as a hate crime. Wisconsin's hate crimes law has never been applied; including in the case of Juana Vega, who was murdered by her partner's brother in Milwaukee in 2001.
Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in addition to law enforcement fully investigating this crime, he hopes Larkin's story will speak to the importance of continued media education on trans issues. There were 162 documented victims of anti-trans violence in 2009. And the rate of these crimes continues to rise around the world.
"The media matters and phrases like 'cross-dressing prostitute' are loaded terms playing to a victim-blaming stereotype or a 'transgender panic' defense," said Silverman. "These types of stories play into the cultural stereotype of transgender people somehow committing fraud or trying to trick people, none of which is true."
Coley further hopes Larkin's legacy will inspire LGBT people to put differences their aside and come together around some of the issues that contributed to her tragic death; racism, poverty and other factors that compel some to turn to sex work in the first place.
"We have to stand up as a community and speak out against this. I hope we'll see how we're all really connected and how the problems a person or group of people face are not walled off within that group but permeate through the whole society," added Coley. "None of us are free if some of us are not. These are not throw-away members of our community. These are precious lives."
Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.